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Drilling effects on groundwater questioned

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Despite a yearlong campaign by Yellow Springs and Miami Township residents and environmental activists urging that area landowners not lease their land for oil and gas drilling, three residents northwest of the village in Miami Township have signed lease agreements with an out-of-state oil company that has plans to drill an exploratory oil well.

While the signed leases forbid hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the initial focus of environmentalists’ and neighbors’ concerns, some remain concerned about the effects of drilling on groundwater contamination in general and the record of the specific drilling company in particular.

This week local activists and neighbors are calling attention to the environmental record of West Bay Exploration, of Traverse City, Mich., and contending that widespread contamination of local aquifers could occur with oil drilling. West Bay continues to assure area residents that they will take precautions to protect groundwater from oil well operations.

And a local geologist asserts that drilling should pose no threat to local water.

In October leases were signed on contiguous properties by Ralph and Melanie Acton, who own 61 acres on West Yellow Springs-Fairfield Road, Ray and Gertrude Delawder, whose 25-acre property is just east of the Acton’s and Fulton Brothers, Inc., whose 80-acre property is east of the Delawder’s. West Bay will soon seek a permit from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to drill an initial exploratory well on the Acton property, located two miles northwest of Yellow Springs.

The three-year leases, made public at the Greene County Recorders Office this week, offer the landowner an upfront payment of $5,000 per acre for the well site in addition to royalties of one-eighth the income generated from any well drilled on the property.

The leases also contain a provision forbidding West Bay from hydraulically fracturing, or fracking, a process in which water and chemicals are injected into deep shale formations to release natural gas. West Bay had previously said it had no intention to frack since the company was searching for oil, not natural gas, from local reservoirs. Local activists, initially only concerned about fracking’s potential to contaminate groundwater with hydrocarbons, carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive materials, are now cautious about any drilling activity in the area.

TJ Turner, who lives on an approximately two-acre property northwest of the proposed drill site, is concerned about the contamination of his well water with hazardous chemicals and plans to organize his neighbors against drilling and test his own well water before drilling begins. Turner, a research scientist at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, is especially worried about the risk to his three young children, all under seven years old.

Springfield resident Mark Winkle said he is hoping to stop the Ohio Department of Natural Resources from issuing a drilling permit to West Bay or, at minimum, to encourage ODNR to strengthen the environmental and safety provisions of the permit. To do so, Winkle is organizing a letter writing campaign to ODNR and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to request ODNR hold a public hearing before issuing the permit.

But according to Heidi Hetzel-Evans of ODNR, as long as West Bay provides all the necessary documentation, the department is required to issue a permit within 21 days. Public hearings are not held when private land is leased, she said. West Bay does not plan to hold any public meetings before drilling begins.

Winkle contends that the area’s unconfined aquifers make drilling especially risky and that benzene, a carcinogenic hydrocarbon, and the volatile organic compounds used in oil extraction are the biggest contamination threats.

“Without extreme safeguards, this well has the potential to cause an extreme amount of damage in a short period of time to a multitude of people — not just those living around it,” said Winkle, a volunteer environmental researcher.

Though the potential drill site is above an unconfined aquifer, in which water could mix with other aquifers during a high-rain event, Yellow Springs’ municipal well field is located in a confined aquifer several miles south of the drill site and is not at risk, according to local geologist Peter Townsend.

Any potential surface contamination at the drill site, including brine fluids used to bring a well into production or spilled hydrocarbons, would flow down into the aquifer and head north toward Mud Run Creek, eventually draining into the Mad River, Townsend added. Though hydrocarbons could be remediated by soil bacteria, brine might contaminate the wells of residents in the path of any underground contamination. Orion Organics on North Enon Road and Smaller Footprint Farm on Jackson Road, which both grow local fruits and vegetables for the Yellow Springs market, are among the properties in that path.

Pat Gibson, vice president of West Bay, said whether an aquifer is confined or unconfined, the company takes preventative measures to avoid polluting water supplies.

“We’re as concerned about any aquifer,” Gibson said. “We make sure nothing we do contaminates the groundwater.”

Gibson said that West Bay regularly takes more precautions than are mandated by the state. For example, under all its drill sites West Bay extends a plastic liner to trap any potential contaminants before the contaminants enter the groundwater. That practice was used by West Bay before it became Michigan law and has been used in its wells in Ohio, Gibson said.

Turner is suspect of West Bay’s commitment to protecting groundwater because of soil and groundwater contamination with benzene and other toxins at seven West Bay oil wells in Michigan in the 1980s. West Bay complied with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to clean up the sites by replacing contaminated soil and installing groundwater monitors, according to a court document.

Gibson said that the contamination in the 1980s was a result of an improperly designed holding tank used by many oil producers in the state at that time. What was thought to be clean water stripped from natural gas was intentionally released through holes in the tank directly into the ground since it was thought to be safe, he said. That water, however, still contained hydrocarbons, which polluted aquifers to dangerously-highly levels in MDNR tests at other oil-producing sites.

Vickie Hennessy, director of the Green Environmental Coalition and member of the new local group, Gas and Oil Drilling Awareness and Education, said she remains skeptical of West Bay. Hennessy has been urging area landowners to get their well water tested and is seeking funding to offset the high price of the tests. So far three area residents have contacted her about the tests, which cost around $400 to $500.

Hennessy pointed to an Oklahoma news report from 2005 as evidence that West Bay may not be honest. In the report, an Oklahoma family was given fill dirt containing hazardous waste from a West Bay drilling pit that had been offered as clean fill dirt. Gibson said the fault lay with its excavation contractor and that the company immediately cleaned the site in compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s order.

Townsend, for one, said he believes West Bay would avoid contamination at the site, which could cost the company millions in remediation.

“Anything more than a small leak is observable at the ground surface at the pad and any responsible company is going to immediately stop the leak,” Townsend said.


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